Chemicals Cops: dumping e-waste overseas is now harder

Agbogbloshie, a scrapyard in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, that provides a living to thousands of Ghanians, not without serious health risks. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Marlenenapoli)

Countries gathered in Geneva for talks around chemicals agreed to toughen rules for the export of electronic waste and add an organic persistent pollutant to the list of banned substances.

While intense trade talks for a deal to end fishing subsidies hogged the attention in Geneva last week, a few kilometres away, environment ministers met face-to-face for the first time in three years at the Geneva Conference Centre to discuss the dangers  toxic chemicals pose for the planet and humans.

It was also the first time in a long time that the triple conference of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions on chemicals and waste management ran so smoothly, without meetings continuing until two or three in the morning. Out of 55 decisions taken, here are the most significant ones.

Tougher rules for e-waste disposal

Countries agreed to toughen rules for electronic debris exporters by requiring them to get prior and informed consent of destination countries before shipping their garbage abroad. The proposal, spearheaded by Switzerland and Ghana, aims to curb 53.6 million metric tonnes of e-waste, most of which ends up in poor countries with little capacity to safely manage the chemical leaching garbage.

A similar amendment was adopted in 2019 for plastic waste, leading to an import ban by China, the largest global importer. While received as a positive step, environmentalists warn that it does not resolve the problem of a massive amount of electronic devices shipped overseas for refurbishment. Since the devices don’t classify as waste, the new rules don’t apply there, meaning less control and protection requirements for the workers that are exposed to these materials.

Agreeing on the need to close the loophole, a diplomatic source said there were ongoing discussions under the Basel Convention to that end.

“It's going to come up more and more on plastics as well. Because, when it goes through the recycling process, when does it stop being a waste and becomes a product again?” said Sarah Brosché, science advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).

The e-waste amendment will enter into force in January 2025.

Another ‘forever chemical’ banned

Countries agreed to a global ban of perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), an industrial chemical used in textiles, non-stick cookware and other materials that accumulates in humans and other living organisms and can cause health issues, including cancer and endocrine disruption.

The dangerous substance was added to the Stockholm Convention’s list of bans without any exemptions, a “historic” move, according to Sarah Brosché, science advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN).

Countries usually ask to be allowed to use the substance for specific circumstances for a period of time, but they didn’t this time. This could be because the substance is already on it’s way to being phased out, Brosché observed, while noting a growing understanding from countries of the need to address perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAs), a group of dangerous chemicals that campaigners have been trying to get banned altogether.

The ban on PFHxS, which is part of the PFAs group, also includes some 80 related chemicals. The move could change the way countries regulate these substances by targeting them in groups instead of one by one.

“Through these nominations, it's moving slowly towards a group class approach,” Brosché said.

She added that next year’s conference might not go as smoothly as more controversial substances will be up for discussion, including UV-328. The proposal to ban the plastic stabiliser, which has shown to cause liver damage and endocrine disruption, has received pushback from the plastic industry.

What needs more work

Countries failed to agree on guidelines on how to manage plastic debris under the Basel convention. The several hundred page text hasn’t been updated for over 20 years, but campaigners say it can wait one more. They argue that the document contains a number of problematic recommendations, including on chemical recycling.

The process has been pushed by the plastics and petrochemical industries as a solution to the global plastic pollution crisis, according to Lee Bell, mercury policy advisor for IPEN.

“The problem is that, when you put mixed plastics into these processes, they're contaminated with chemical additives that need to be extracted to obtain a pure plastic. This means that you end up with a giant hazardous waste stream that many countries don’t have the capacity to manage,” Bell said.

Additional meetings will be held between now and the next chemicals conference, scheduled for 2023 in the Bahamas.

Another issue in which governments could not reach a compromise is the threshold of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) a product can contain before being considered a hazardous substance. Hazardous waste is prohibited from being recycled by the Basel convention to avoid reintroducing dangerous substances into the market. The stronger the POPs limit, the more products fall under these restrictions.

Several countries, particularly from the African continent, were pushing for stricter regulation, according to observers, because they have less capacity to monitor the products that cross their borders.

The EU is currently divided over the question, with the parliament adopting strict guidelines and the European Commission pushing for a weaker limit that would help it achieve its recycling targets.

A handful of countries blocked yet again five substances recommended for listing under the Rotterdam convention, including the herbicide paraquat and the mineral fibre asbestos, which has been widely used in construction. The dangerous substances have been on the dock for over a decade to comply with trade transparency rules.

The Convention’s rule of consensus showed once again its limits. A diplomatic source said that it was being used like a veto power, which wasn’t the original purpose of the rule.